Smaller than a grain of sand, phytoplankton are key to aquatic health

Scientists are inching closer to revealing the elusive mechanisms that tiny marine species activate to transform organic contaminants in water into less toxic chemicals

Cup sea water in your hands and you will be holding a bustling world of single-cell organisms—thousands of them. 

Much like creatures of an undersea metropolis, microscopic photosynthetic microbes—phytoplankton—quietly float through the ocean, enhancing water quality. As the foundation for the ocean ecosystem, phytoplankton work tirelessly to fuel marine food webs and consume large amounts of carbon dioxide on scales equivalent to forests. But this is not all they can do. These tiny plants may turn organic contaminants into less toxic chemicals. 

Sounds simple, but it’s not. The processes involved remain elusive. 

Synthetic chemicals in the environment

Water pollution, once an invisible, silent threat, is now a top environmental concern worldwide. 

“Millions of tons of synthetic organic chemicals are used for industrial, agricultural and consumers’ purposes annually. These compounds partially find their way to the aquatic environment, impairing water quality and undermining aquatic life,” said Giulia Cheloni, an environmental scientist studying phytoplankton’s responses to carbon-based contaminants. 

These pollutants are described as contaminants of emerging concern because of their potential risk to human health and ecological impacts. They can be found in personal care products like fragrances, disinfectants and sunscreen agents, as well as household items such as solvents, fabric protectors and flame retardants. 

Can powerful phytoplankton clean up contaminants?

Scientists are studying how organic contaminants affect phytoplankton.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s